Our Efforts to Preserve the traditional Singer Sewing Machine in our Scottish Mills.
Do you remember the rhythmical click-clack of a manual typewriter? Or the crackle of dust under a record player’s needle? As technology gallops forward and trends chop and change, traditional equipment can be left redundant, and with it the associated skills of operation. Not true, however, of the iconic Singer sewing machine, which we are preserving with vigour in our Scottish mills.
To safeguard one of our most popular design features and strengthen ties with our local community, we are breathing new life into perceivably outdated technology with a history that goes back almost as far as our own. To prolong the life of this heritage equipment, we have partnered with Moray College UHI on an innovative 3D printing project.
Two secondary school students, currently undertaking foundation apprenticeships at a local college, have been tasked with stripping and rebuilding a machine to suggest engineering methods to prolong its life expectancy. They aim to create a library of 3D printable spare parts and an assembly guide for the old Singer machines.
A blanket stitch is often used to reinforce the edge of thick materials, and its distinctive aesthetic is visible on both sides of the fabric. The traditional stitch features on our popular Reversible Blanket Stitched Throws and Bed Throws made with a luxurious blend of the finest Merino Wool and the highest quality super-soft Cashmere.
Johnstons of Elgin’s Senior Sewing Technician Stephen Donachie explained that our customers love this unique detail, but the Singer machine used to create it is dying out.
There’s nothing else on the market that can give us the blanket stitch in this finish,' he said. 'It's a low speed, low impact machine, and there's a fair level of skill required. We can still use these machines, give them a spot of oil in the morning, and we don't get many problems. Except if a part breaks and we can’t get a new one.’
Singer Corporation, originally I. M. Singer & Co, created its first domestic sewing machine using a basic eye-pointed needle and lock stitch. Sewing machine inventor Elias Howe had initially developed this mechanism and won a patent-infringement suit against Singer in 1854. In 1851, Singer obtained a patent for an improved sewing machine that included a circular feed wheel, thread controller, and power transmitted by gear wheels and shafting, and by 1860 the company was the largest manufacturer of sewing machines in the world.
In 1867, to meet UK demand, they opened a factory in Glasgow, adding another, larger plant in 1873. The market continued to grow, and in 1882 a ground-breaking development opened at Clydebank, Glasgow, with buildings on 46 acres of land connected by railway lines. It was designed to be fire-proof with water sprinklers, making it the most modern factory in Europe at that time, in addition to its status as the largest sewing machine factory in the world. In 1905 each building was extended upwards to 6 storeys. A railway station was added, with connections to adjoining towns and central Glasgow to assist in transporting the workforce to the facility.
During the First World War, sewing machine production temporarily gave way to the manufacture of munitions. Financial problems and lack of orders forced the world's largest sewing machine factory to close in June 1980, bringing to an end over 100 years of sewing machine production in Scotland. The buildings were demolished in 1998. Singer's US operations currently manufacture computerized, heavy-duty embroidery, quilting, serging and mechanical sewing machines.
They say the most sustainable product is the one you already own. We continue to work with traditional Singer machines and have a small bank of machine ‘shells’ and parts at our Elgin site.
‘We buy second hand or reconditioned machines, and even if they have been reconditioned, we put them on the bench and strip them down to recondition and rebuild them,' said Stephen, adding that he has explored several options to secure vital spare parts.
‘Some parts are made in the Far East, but the minimum order is 100, which is about 50 years’ supply. Some parts can be reengineered in the UK, at Nottingham, and we are looking at 3D printing,’ he said.
Stephen explained that the machines have unique serial numbers to trace the manufacturing date and the quantity produced. Some number in the thousands, but with others, Singer made only 5 or 6. As well as preserving these machines for practical use, the process is safeguarding a piece of history.
Lexi Sayle and Carrie Brown, 17, are students at Elgin Academy, near our Scottish weaving mill. Both are working towards foundation apprenticeships at Moray College UHI. Their project to create spares and manuals for our Singer machines will help maintain a piece of history.
Paul Harlow, an Engineering lecturer at Moray College UHI, explained, ‘Foundation Apprenticeships are a work-based learning opportunity for senior-phase secondary school pupils. Part of Lexi and Carrie’s apprenticeship involves taking part in an industry challenge project.
These are incredibly intricate machines, with complex shapes which represent a significant challenge to take apart, measure and model in three-dimensional computer-aided design (CAD).’
Learning and Development Manager at Johnstons of Elgin Emma Hay praised the student’s efforts on this project.
‘We are committed to the communities in which we operate. Developing the skills we need will allow us to continue delighting our customers with the most beautiful and innovative textiles for a long time to come.
‘Carrie and Lexi’s wholehearted engagement with this project has proven the value of partnerships between education and industry,’ she said.
We continue to embrace change and invest in new technology as a brand. But we also appreciate the importance of nurturing and sharing long-standing skills and taking a sustainable approach to our processes. Our Singer sewing machine project is a great example - utilizing what we already have rather than replacing machinery unnecessarily. In the meantime, our Blanket Stitch Throws and Bed Throws remain a best seller, featuring a special decorative stitch with a truly unique story.